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Ukulele artist played jazz, influenced isle musicians

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  • DENNIS ODA / 2001

    Ukulele player Lyle Ritz poses at his Oahu home. Ritz, who was a member of “The Wrecking Crew,” a group of Los Angeles session musicians popular in the 1960s, died Friday.

Lyle Ritz, the revered bassist for “The Wrecking Crew” and pioneering jazz ukulele player, who made a huge impact on musicians in Hawaii, has died at 87.

He died peacefully after a long illness under hospice care Friday in Portland, Ore., according to his wife, Geri Ritz.

When Ritz released his groundbreaking album “How About Uke?” nearly 60 years ago, it didn’t generate much interest on the mainland. So instead, he took up the bass and became part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, a group of Hollywood studio musicians who played on most of the pop hits that came out of Los Angeles from the mid-1960s to the early ’80s, including “Good Vibrations” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Living in Los Angeles back then, Ritz had no idea he had influenced Hawaii musicians like Byron Yasui, who said he is saddened by the loss of Ritz. “He was a good friend and a big influence in my life because, coincidentally, we both played the same instruments, bass and ukulele. And we both played jazz,” Yasui said.

Yasui grew up idolizing Ritz. “You know like how Elvis Presley was to a lot of kids, Lyle Ritz was like that for me, like a god, that’s how big an impact he made on, not just me, but a bunch of us,” said the retired professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who also performed onstage with Ritz.

“Before Lyle Ritz, ukulele players in Hawaii, for the most part, played songs with simple chords, two or three chords,” Yasui said. “Then, Lyle came along and he played these jazz standards with these rich harmonies that are really challenging to play, and he opened up our ears and eyes to a new style of playing. That’s his biggest contribution. Nobody played jazz like that on the ukulele before. And he played jazz standards with top-notch jazz musicians.”

Ritz was born in Cleveland in 1930. The multi-­instrumentalist taught himself how to play the ukulele when he worked in a music store in Los Angeles and had to sell them.

“One day, somebody wanted to see this beautiful, nice tenor uke. And I picked it up and played a few chords on it, and I was gone. I just loved it so much,” Ritz said in a 2007 interview.

After Ritz served a stint in the Army, jazz guitarist Barney Kessel got him his first record deal, and Ritz put out a second one before hanging up his uke. Two things brought him back to his first musical love. In 1979, Ritz played ukulele on the movie soundtrack “The Jerk,” starring Steve Martin. Then, in 1984, Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher, Roy Sakuma, decided to track him down.

Sakuma never forgot how ukulele players tried to mimic Ritz’s style of playing in the ’50s and his signature tune, a cover of “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

“When I told my wife the story of of how we used to listen to his records all the time and try to figure out the songs, she said, ‘Why don’t you bring him to Hawaii?’ And I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ And I went out to Simi Valley (in Los Angeles) and I knocked on his door,” ­Sakuma recalled. “He was shocked to find out he had made such an impact on ­Hawaii with the ukulele.”

After Sakuma invited Ritz to perform at the annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii in Honolulu, Ritz and his family eventually moved to Oahu, where he lived for 15 years.

In the 1990s, music promoter Jim Beloff says, he was swept away when he discovered Ritz’s album, “How About Uke?” “I hadn’t heard the ukulele played in such a cool and hip way.” Back then, he was the associate publisher at Billboard Magazine in Los Angeles and author of “The Ukulele: A Visual History.”

Beloff said Ritz’s landmark album inspired him to leave his job and go into the ukulele business. He published three Lyle Ritz songbooks, and released two of his CDs and a DVD.

“The whole worldwide ukulele community mourns his passing. Lyle Ritz was a giant and continues to inspire players everywhere,” said Beloff.

In 2007, Ritz was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

In addition to Ritz’s wife, he’s survived by his daughter Emily Miyasato of Kailua. A memorial service will be held on March 18 in Portland, Ore.

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